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In the U.S. there are many different drugs that are illegal. Some of the most common ones are marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy.
If a drug is illegal, it is generally safe to assume that you can be criminally punished for the possession, use, sale, distribution, or manufacture of the drug. Of course, there are some drugs which are not completely illegal, but are tightly controlled. These are drugs that have legitimate medical uses, but a high potential for abuse.
Methamphetamine is an example of this — in small doses it is used to treat attention deficit disorder, and severe depression. Of course, in larger doses, it can be extremely addictive and harmful. For this reason, the use of methamphetamine and similar drugs is tightly controlled, and pharmacies which distribute such drugs are subject to extremely strict regulation.
Several states, most notably California, have made the cultivation, sale, and use of marijuana legal for medical purposes, to treat certain illnesses (it is most often used to treat the side effects of chemotherapy in cancer patients). Still, a minority of states have legalized medical marijuana, but the numbers are gradually increasing.
However, marijuana is still illegal under federal law, so this creates a conflict. Even though marijuana may be perfectly legal under the laws of your state, and you are free from prosecution by state authorities, there is nothing to stop the federal government from enforcing its own anti-marijuana laws, which make no allowance for medical use. It should be noted that the Obama Administration has adopted a policy of not prosecuting distributors of medical marijuana if they are in perfect compliance with the laws of the state in which they're located. However, this administration, or a future president, could change this policy at any time.
Crack cocaine is a highly concentrated form of the drug cocaine. Chemically, however, it is the exact same drug, with the same biological effects. However, possession of 5 grams or more of crack cocaine carries a minimum sentence of 5 years in prison. To get that same sentence for powder cocaine, you would have to possess 500 grams or more, and be involved in trafficking it.
Many people have commented on this disparity, and the unequal effect it has on poor people.
Crack cocaine, however, is much cheaper than powdered cocaine. It is also more prevalent in poor urban communities. Powder cocaine, on the other hand, is expensive and tends to be used by wealthier people.
As a practical matter, this means that far more young, poor people than wealthy people are in prison for possession of essentially the same drug. Many have recognized the unfairness of this situation, and the sentencing guidelines were recently changed to bring the penalties for possession of the two drugs closer together.
Driving Under the Influence
It is unlawful to drive a car or operate heavy machines while impaired by the effects of any mind-altering drug. By far the most common drug involved in such offenses is alcohol. Alcohol impairs judgment, coordination, reflexes, and vision. It goes without saying that driving while drunk puts innocent bystanders in a great deal of danger. Indeed, thousands of people in the U.S. are killed by drunk driving every year, and drunk driving accounts for almost half of the total traffic deaths in the U.S.
Most states have two related offenses that involve driving while under the influence of alcohol. First, most states have a maximum legal blood alcohol content (BAC) which a person may have and legally drive. It is typically .08% to .10% by volume. If a person is driving with a BAC at or above the state's legal maximum, they have committed a crime, regardless of how much they were actually impaired.
The other crime can be committed regardless of the amount of alcohol in your system. If your driving is found to be impaired because of alcohol, you are guilty of a crime, even if your BAC was below the legal limit.
Drunk Driving Penalties
The penalties for drunk driving tend to be harsh, especially for repeat offenders. If you're pulled over, and the officer has a reasonable suspicion that you are drunk, you can be arrested, which probably means spending at least a few hours in the "drunk tank."
Once charged and convicted of a DUI, a first offense typically results in a large fine, and perhaps mandatory attendance of some kind of alcohol abuse counseling. It may also result in a license suspension. Repeat offenders can face heavier fines, longer license suspensions, and possibly jail time.
Furthermore, there are additional long-term costs. One study has estimated that, when all is said and done, a DUI conviction ends up costing a person up to $20,000, when bail, fines, attorney and court fees, insurance premium hikes, license reinstatement fees, and alcohol abuse counseling are taken into account. If a DUI conviction results in license revocation, and you have to drive yourself to work, there may be practically no upper limit on what a DUI can cost you.